Life in the shadow of the Shoah

As this week is International Holocaust Remembrance week, indulge me as I reflect on how the Shoah has permeated every stage my life.

LEAH KLEIN, the writer’s mother, is welcomed by her family as she makes aliyah (photo credit: PNINA WEISS PERETZ)
LEAH KLEIN, the writer’s mother, is welcomed by her family as she makes aliyah
(photo credit: PNINA WEISS PERETZ)
In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am turning this week’s column over to my beloved wife, second-generation survivor Susie Weiss. – Stewart Weiss
Never say there is only death for you. 
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue;
Because the hour we have hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble – we are here!
(“Zog Nit Kainmol,” The Song of the Partisans, Hirsch Glick)
I am an American, born and raised in Cleveland, with stops in Chicago, Fort Worth and Dallas; I am an Israeli olah and proud citizen, living in beautiful Ra’anana; and I am also a bereaved parent, the mother of Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss, a member of an elite IDF anti-terror unit who fell in combat against Hamas terrorists in 2002. But the identity that I have lived with since the day I was born, the one that plagues my every waking moment and will continue to do so until the day I die, is that of a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
As this week is International Holocaust Remembrance week, indulge me as I reflect on how the Shoah has permeated every stage my life.
Although my parents were immigrants to the United Sates after the war, I had what I think is a typical American childhood and upbringing. I was raised in an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood, a child of the 1960s and all that implies: bell bottoms, rock music, the Vietnam War and teenage rebellion. Most of my friends were also children of survivors, and all our parents had European accents (unbeknownst to us all!). After the horrors of the Holocaust – my father being in a slave labor camp and my mother “celebrating” her 16th birthday in Auschwitz – my folks were proud and thankful to live in America. I remember well our Thanksgiving dinners, where kugel, flanken and dobosh torte (wasn’t that what the Pilgrims ate?!) mixed with the turkey and the stuffing.
Almost none of my friends had grandparents – the Germans had seen to that – but that’s just the way it was. In fact, we felt sorry for our one native-born friend Rosemary; she had to visit her grandparents every Sunday and couldn’t hang out with us at the mall. My mom was Hungarian – blonde, beautiful and flamboyant. She could have been a triplet with Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor – and she was always the life of the party. I confess that I was more than a little embarrassed when she walked in the room and immediately became the center of attraction. But I came to understand that she was determined to recapture the part of her life that had been robbed from her by the Nazis; by choosing celebration over suffering she was sending a message to her tormentors that she had won.
I recall that when our family took a “roots tour” to her native Budapest, she dressed to the hilt everywhere we went. As we entered our posh hotel, an elderly employee held the door open for us. “Don’t you wonder what he did during the war?” my sister asked my mother. “He probably waved at you gleefully as you rode the train to Auschwitz!” Mom looked at us straight in the eyes. “Yes, that may be true,” she said, “but look who is waiting on whom now.”
Like most survivors, my parents tended to be somewhat over-protective of me and my sister. If we ever were late coming home, they became nervous and angry. I didn’t understand it then, but now I realize what thoughts came into their head, and how so many of their relatives had suddenly disappeared without a trace. What seemed irrational then, now makes perfect sense.
OUR DECISION to make aliyah in 1992, with five kids in tow, was both a dream realized and a shock for my parents. While they were quite happy that Stewart was fulfilling his ambition of living in Israel, they were taken aback when he informed them that the children and I would be accompanying him as well! My father, ever pragmatic, was less than convinced that Israel needed yet another rabbi, and that we would be able to put food on the table (survivors, I would learn, have a very intense preoccupation with food!). When Stewart tried to assure him, by saying “Hashem Ya’azor” (God will help), Dad let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he was not Hashem. 
Yet coming to our eternal homeland, where Jews walk tall and proud, was a vision and a mission that my parents had instilled in me through their Zionistic community work, both in practice and pocket. While it tore them apart to see their precious einiklach (grandchildren) taken so far away, I and my family were the embodiment of their belief that a Jew should live in a place where he can walk freely, where he is never a second-class citizen looking over his shoulder.
Seeing those same grandchildren in an IDF uniform was an out-of-body experience for us all, but especially my parents. Ari was the first to be inducted after our older daughters chose to serve in Sherut Leumi. When Bubie and Zayde came for the tekes hashba’a (induction ceremony) at the Kotel, my parents cried like I’ve never seen before. I could read their minds as they watched hundreds of strong, valiant young men hold their Tanach and rifle while swearing allegiance to the Jewish homeland. “Jews with guns, standing up against the enemy! Jews telling the world, ‘we’ll never submit meekly again!” Words just can’t fully express this unforgettable moment for them.
Two years later, Bubie and Zayde would be here visiting for Sukkot, as Ari spent a very rare few days away from his unit. As they prepared to leave after the holiday, there came that dreaded knock on the door that changed our lives forever. Though, blessedly, I remember little of that horrible night, the memory of my larger-than-life parents crumbling into themselves on the couch, sobbing uncontrollably, is indelibly etched on my conscience. Hadn’t they been through enough? God, what are you thinking?! How can they survive this unbearable trauma? But survive we all did, and Mom even made aliyah at the age of 82 after Dad passed away.
I HAVE been blessed with much good in my life, and I am shalem, complete with the choices I have made. But I grow sad as I acknowledge that this unique generation that produced us is rapidly disappearing. Only late in life was my mother able to speak of her experiences in Auschwitz, of clinging to her sister as they stood in front of the infamous Dr. Mengele, of watching her mother and three younger siblings as they walked to the left, never to be seen again. Upon her coming to America back in the early 1950s, Mom once shared a bit of her life with a new American friend, who was quick to assure her that life in the United States was also no picnic, as the Depression and bread lines were quite inconvenient. That comment would hold her back for years from sharing with anyone who didn’t have the same accent as hers; for whom else could ever understand, could ever conceive of what she had gone through? 
And I am the quintessential second generation, who forgave our parents for everything, embarrassments and all. We didn’t want to cause them any more grief than they had already experienced. We took for granted how they had rebuilt their lives and done what had to be done to support and raise families just like “everyone else.” My mother’s joie de vivre, as I look back, was nothing short of amazing. Chaperoning my public school dances, she would dance with more boys than I did; she powered ahead and never looked back. I marvel at how she was involved in every facet of her community and lived, to the fullest, the life that Hashem granted her when he spared her from the crematorium. She was an icon, and she was my mother.
That is why it’s so hard to believe she is gone. Two weeks ago, at the ripe old age of 92, Hashem called Leah Weinberger Klein back to Gan Eden, back to my father who has been waiting for her for 15 years. He cared for her like a princess for six decades, marrying her at 17 years old as she walked back from the camps. They journeyed together on a road few of us could imagine, let alone emulate. This week – like all other weeks – I think of her, of all those who perished and all those who mercifully survived. May their memory always be an inspiration to us. 
So never say that there is only death for you;
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue;
Because the hour we have hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble – we are here!